Rob Simmons did not like the idea.
When he was told before spring ball he’d be moving from defensive end to linebacker, Simmons balked.
“I was hesitant at first because I wanted to play receiver, I wanted to play D-end,” JUCO transfer Simmons said of the only two positions he’d played before. “Never playing linebacker, it was different. So I was kind of scared. But now that I’m playing it, I’m warmed up to it.”
Probably doesn’t hurt Simmons is making strides each practice in the new role.
On Monday, in Purdue’s 13th practice of the spring, Simmons dropped into coverage and batted a ball down in the end zone during a 7-on-7 period, floated into the flat to tip another pass in a team period and nearly ended the day in another team period with an interception — but that pass somehow slipped through his hands to Tyler Hamilton for a completion. The missed opportunity had Simmons bummed after practice, but he also could be encouraged: He was close to making a play. That wasn’t exactly the case early in the spring.
Simmons has less than four years’ experience playing football, not joining his high school team until he was a senior — and then playing receiver — before playing two years in junior college, where he was a receiver and a defensive end. In his first season at Purdue last year, he worked with the defensive ends but redshirted. He was too thin — only 215 pounds at 6-foot-6 — and still was learning not just the nuances of the position but football, really.
So when Simmons found out he was going to get switched to linebacker, a position he didn’t know anything about, it was admittedly a challenge. In those early practices, he had to not only grasp a bunch of defensive install, but he also was trying to understand the most basic techniques of the position, whether it was footwork, alignment or, even, learning how to cover a zone, let alone being matched up with a slot receiver in man.
But linebacker coach Nick Holt, also the defensive coordinator, found the right mix of being patient with Simmons while also expecting him to exhibit a learning curve. Regularly — and even on Wednesday — Holt has Simmons repeat reps during individual periods, making sure to specifically tell him about hand placement in a certain drill, especially when it comes to shedding a block, or the way his feet should shuffle and not cross in coverage.
After a mistake on a snap during a team period Wednesday, Holt walked onto the field to instruct Simmons on where he was supposed to go in the zone, based on what the cornerback to that side of the field did.
Every moment is a learning opportunity.
And, gradually, Simmons is starting to get aligned correctly more often or make the right drop or rush the right gap. He started getting reps with the 2s last week, as well as getting snaps with the 3s.
“I think it’s a good sign. It’s just reps, really. Getting me reps, letting me learn the plays,” Simmons said. “I wasn’t for (linebacker) at first, but I've embraced it. I’m happy (Holt is) giving me reps because what other way am I going to learn the game? What other way am I going to learn the defense?
“Coach Holt, he gets on me every day, but it’s not like getting on you and tearing you down. It’s getting on you to coach you up. At first it was hard for me to see that, being as though he was new and I wasn’t comfortable with him. But now, I see it. All he’s trying to do is get me better because he knew what I could do. Him giving me more reps, he has a lot in for me, and I’m ready for it.”
At least from a physical standpoint, Simmons is an intriguing player.
He’s long, athletic and is going to add even more weight over the offseason, he said, in hopes of being more physically prepared to play the position and not just absorb hits but deliver some, too. Simmons added about 15 pounds last season — he’s playing in the 230-range right now, he said — but wants to add at least 10, maybe 15 more by camp. He’ll keep that athleticism, too, even with that weight.
That’s regardless where Simmons ends up in the fall.
“Throughout summer and for fall camp, we may kind of isolate him at one exact position and make sure he knows what to do,” Coach Jeff Brohm said Wednesday. “I think he’s probably going to be more effective on the line of scrimmage as a rush guy, compared to in space as a linebacker, but he’s doing a good job of learning and getting better.
"But he has athletic ability, and we have to find a spot for him.”
Though Simmons said the last two months have been “crazy” and “hectic,” he’s happy with how much he’s learned and grown over the spring.
And can’t wait to see what it means in the fall, especially in a defense he thinks can play to his strengths.
“I think I can produce a lot in this defense,” he said.
• Running back Markell Jones was back on the field in pads Monday. Jones had been nursing a back injury and had participated in only one in the previous seven practices.
Purdue also got Brian Lankford-Johnson back for the majority of practice, though he finished with ice on his right hamstring. Defensive end Austin Larkin, who's been out since Day 2, was in shoulder pads for the first half of practice but moved to the pit once team periods started.
DB Josh Hayes, who had offseason foot surgery, wasn't in pads, but he was a participant during early defensive stations in practice, including a pursuit drill in which he ran full speed from the opposite sideline to the end zone.
• The Boilermakers added a couple more players, though, to the injury list. Defensive backs Brandon Shuman (knee) and Jacob Thieneman (collarbone) likely are done for the spring after getting hurt during the scrimmage.
• Terrance Landers hadn't been injured — he'd been held out because of academics issues, per Jeff Brohm — but he was back Monday, too.
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